Bottled Water Sales Ended 1/1/2013

UVM was one of the first public universities in the country to end the sale of bottled water (the flat and unflavored variety) on campus. Burlington, Vermont provides safe, clean drinking water to campus, and providing bottled water from another community is not necessary. Ending bottled water sales was intended to emphasize that the local water is fine, and as an ancillary benefit, to reduce the amount of waste generated from the purchase and disposal of plastic bottles, which had reached numbers in excess of 350,000 per year at UVM. A sustained student campaign shifted many students' habits, reducing bottled water sales by about a third. Ending the sale of botttled water was the next phase of that cultural shift, a recognition of safe, local water as an essential human right and a societal responsibility.

On January 31, 2012 the University of Vermont announced that it would end the sale of bottled water on campus and mandate healthy options for one-third of the drinks offered in vending machines. Read the article from University Communications here.


Read the Vermont Quarterly article from Spring 2013, and see below.

What has happened since with bottled water on campus?

The campus community is now used to not buying single-use containers full of water. Instead, students and employees alike are mostly used to filling and bringing their own personal refillable water bottles. There was initially some concern that people might be buying unhealthy beverages instead of drinking tap water. That question has not been re-examined since, and no uptick in consumption of unhealthy beverages has been noticeable. 

How did the end of bottled water sales come about?

Sale of bottled water ended January 2013. Because of the complexity in retrofitting water fountains from many eras across our historic campus, the date for ending sales of bottled water was extended six months beyond the end of the 2002-2012 contract. Bottled water is not to be sold through vending, retail, concessions, catering, or residential dining.

Student, faculty and staff opinion: The student message for five years focused on ending sales of bottled water on campus. Faculty concern about what constitutes healthy beverages has also arisen, and several fall 2011 events addressed this question. In fall 2012 a Social Research Methods course, CDAE 250 taught by Dr. David Conner, conducted observations, interviews and surveys of undergraduate students about their beverage habits and opinions. This service-learning class helped inform the administration's decisions about how best to implement the policy. One question was whether "Smartwater" should be exempted; the students said no. The decision was that flat, unflavored water would no longer be sold. 

Ten-year beverage contract ended June 2012: The contract with Coca-Cola of Northern New England expired June 30, 2012. There is no longer a corporate sponsorship arrangement, with near-exclusive marketing and "pouring rights." The University put the vending portion, comprising about 20% of total bottled beverage sales, out to bid. Most of the beverages served on campus have continued to be sold through Dining Services in retail, residential dining, catering, and athletics concessions. Now that the ten-year exclusive contract has ended, Dining may purchase the beverage mix of their choice, usually through national contracts available through Sodexo, Dining's parent company, with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other companies.

Non-exclusive beverage vending started July 2012: On February 1, 2012, a request for proposal was released seeking proposals to provide UVM with beverage vending. UVM received three bid responses as part of this process. The University chose Sodexo as the vendor for the beverage vending contract for the following three years. This contract began on July 1, 2012 and extended through June 30, 2015. The contract was a non-exclusive agreement and Sodexo offers products from multiple brands. Consistent with the University’s goal to support environmental sustainability this contract excluded bottled (non-flavored and non-carbonated) water from all vending machines beginning on January 1, 2013. Additionally, in the interest of promoting more healthy choices, at least 33% of the beverage options in vending machines on campus were to be healthy choice products according to American Heart Association guidelines.

New dining contract starting July 2015 included more healthy beverage options: On July 1, 2016 the University entered into a new dining contract that includes beverage provision. The contract places a strong emphasis on healthy food and beverage options, with measurable outcomes defined through the University's commitment to the Real Food Challenge, and through an internal effort to promote healthy beverages. The result was that 50% of beverage options in retail and vending locations must meet AHA guidelines as "healthy choice" options, and that a new campaign has been developed starting in January 2016. 

Who were the student activists, and what did they do?

Students for a Sustainable Beverage System was started by members of VSTEP (Vermont Students Towards Environmental Protection).  VSTEP members are concerned about environmental protection, human rights, health and nutrition, agriculture systems, and promoting local economies by supporting local vendors, among other issues.

SSBS included those who signed VSTEP's petition to ask for a positive change in UVM's beverage system. VSTEP worked with Eco-Reps, Student Government Association senators, Slow Food UVM, and UVM Residential Life, and was supported by Student Life and the UVM Office of Sustainability. By mobilizing a collaboration of student groups working with faculty and staff, the group could influence decisions about the beverage contract. Two resolutions in favor of a more sustainable beverage system passed the Student Government Association, adding the weight of an official governance group.

SSBS supported a number of measures, focusing on  the following:

  • NO bottled water sold/provided by the university on campus
  • Decrease in single-use plastic beverage containers
  • Increase in water & beverage fountain access across campus

After many conversations, the arguments in favor of the group's goals gained traction around campus and with faculty and staff governance groups, and the university leaders made the decision to take a new approach with the expiration of the beverage contract.

Here's how Ilana Copel, 2012-13 VSTEP co-president, described the history:

"The shift towards ending bottled water sales on campus began quite a few years ago, and was really set in motion by Mikayla McDonald (UVM ’10), who was president of VSTEP and an SGA senator. Later, VSTEP co-presidents Marlee Baron and Emilyn Fox (both UVM ’11) sped things up, both putting in immense amounts of time doing research, presentations, proposal drafts, etc. Marlee wrote her thesis on “Creating a Sustainable Beverage System at UVM.” Greg Francese (UVM ’12) was president ’11-’12 when the administration really got on board with the change.

Shana McCann and I are now co-presidents, and will be working to makes sure the transition to reusable bottles and refill stations goes smoothly for students. However, all of the steps were whole-club efforts, and many people helped with every stage of the process."

Contact VSTEP at

Bottled Water Retirement Party

Celebrating success! On December 5, 2012 at lunchtime on the last day of classes, UVM celebrated the end bottled water sales on campus with a Bottled Water Retirement Party, unveiling a sculpture entitled "Inherently Unstable and Prone to Collapse: A Monument to Waste" (see the news release).  UVM Art Department faculty member Beth Haggart teamed up with art students and a wide range of UVM and community members to create an arch built of used plastic beverage bottles for the event, which featured speakers, games, taste tests, and discounted water bottles. The event attracted media attention, including a December 12 editorial in the Boston Globe, Kicking the Bottled­ Water Habit, and articles in the Burlington Free Press, WAMC radio, and Vermont Public Radio--see below.

The student voice in this decision rang clear, with presentations at the party by former and current VSTEP leaders Mikayla McDonald (’10) and Ilana Copel (’13), and quotations in several articles. Kudos to students of VSTEP for their perseverance over many years!

A couple of corrections to this story: UVM has spent about $29,000 retrofitting fountains, not $175,000. And Smartwater will not be sold. See Bottled Water FAQs.